Portsmouth 2 Ipswich Town 1

Today is the United Nations International Day of Happiness.  Looking out of my kitchen window I see that the International Day of Happiness is dull; the sky is grey and overcast; worse still, this afternoon’s match between Ipswich Town and Portsmouth at Fratton Park kicks off at one o’clock, when I should happily be enjoying lunch or a pre-match pint.   More pleasingly, because my wife Paulene supports Portsmouth, we shall therefore be watching the game together.  Over a cup of coffee at breakfast I ask her if she is excited about today’s game.  She confesses that she is not.  Portsmouth’s recent form has been as poor, even worse than Ipswich Town’s.  The appointment of a new manager has not inspired her, Paulene cannot get excited about an appointment known as “The Cowleys”, and the fact that they managed Braintree Town seems to trouble her.

The early kick-off will probably spoil my whole day,  it did when Town played at Gillingham a fortnight ago,  although the final score played a part in that.   Football needs to be at 3 o’clock, so at least I get a decent few hours to enjoy in the morning.  Sensing that my negative feeling towards today’s fixture mean that I’m not really entering into the spirit of United Nations International Day of Happiness I try to spread some joy and write a birthday card for my step-son’s mother-in-law’s partner Larry,  who is eighty years old today.  Happy Birthday Larry.  Larry is not really much of a football fan, he’s more into Far Eastern philosophy, although we did once go and watch Coggeshall Town play Witham Town in the preliminary round of the FA Cup.

With the Portsmouth v Ipswich fixture being our household ‘derby’ I am tuning into the ifollow to watch an away game for the first time.  This means that I shall not be able to listen to my usual source of knowledge and insight, the commentary of Brenner Woolley and Mick Mills from BBC Radio Suffolk, but will instead be relying upon Brenner’s equivalent at BBC Radio Solent, a radio station that I like to think broadcasts from the sea bed and therefore has presenters who look like the cast of Gerry Anderson’s Stingray.  We log-in just in time to hear the puppet presenters giving their predictions for this afternoon’s final score.  “Ipswich are terrified of the ball” announces someone, I don’t know who, as they justify why Pompey will win.  The predictions are 1-0, 1-0 and 2-0 to Pompey. 

Brenner’s underwater equivalent announces that this afternoon’s match sees the start of “… a new era against a team that will provide memories of an old one”.  Different club, different radio station, same old cliché-ridden, hackneyed drivel I think to myself.   The commentator’s side-kick is introduced as former Pompey striker Guy Whittingham, “Danny Cowley is an experienced man” says Guy, “so is Nicky” he adds as an obvious afterthought.  Any bloke over forty who isn’t a man because of recent gender re-assignment could probably be said to be “an experienced man” though.

The game begins and I learn that the aquatic version of Brenner is called Andrew Moon; he is soon describing Ipswich’s third choice shirt. “It’s what I am going to call maroon shirts with dark red stripes” says Moon, revealing straightaway that he is either colour blind or has no words in his vocabulary for dark blue.  Much like Brenner would, he soon proceeds to tell us that “Paul Cook is watching the game very casually, with a mug of coffee in his hand”.  Very quickly it is apparent that Moon has the same book of commentator’s words and phrases as Brenner.  “Naylor goes to ground” he says as the Pompey number four scurries into a burrow.  Minutes later Town earn a free-kick close to where the touchline meets the by-line; it’s“ a glorified corner” according to Moon; it’s not a phrase I’ve yet heard trip from the mouth of Brenner,  but it would be worthy of him.

Fourteen minutes pass.  “No significant opportunities at either end as yet” says Moon.  Four minutes later Jack Whatmough fouls the oddly named Keanan Bennetts. “Surely, has to be a booking” says Moon showing admirable impartiality and honesty worthy of the BBC and its Reithian values.   Craig McGillivray makes a decent flying save from little Alan Judges resultant free-kick.  Moon emulates Brenner by mentioning the weather, “Spring not quite here yet” he adds, giving closure to the subject.

Nearly half an hour has gone and the oddly named Keanan Bennetts wins the game’s first corner, excluding ‘glorified corners’ that is.  Four minutes later a fine passing move ends with an exquisite through ball from Gwion Edwards, which sends James Norwood into the Pompey penalty area where slightly unexpectedly he lashes the ball into the far corner of the net past a motionless McGillivray. Town lead 1-0, “… probably deservedly so, on play” says Guy Whittingham grudgingly and weirdly implying that there is another means to assess who deserves to be winning other than ‘play’.  I suspect the ‘Whittingham method’ may be based on which team is wearing shirts with a crescent moon and star badge or contains players with the surnames Harness, Cannon and Raggett.

As I boldly begin to enjoy the game and imagine the name of Ipswich Town proudly ensconced in fifth place in the third division table Pompey win a corner.  The ball narrowly avoids the head of Toto Nsiala at the near post before Pompey’s Tom Naylor heads the ball onto the far post which in turn diverts it into the goal.  “Naylor scores the first goal of the Danny Cowley era” says Moon moronically in the style of some hack reporter.  “Portsmouth have a leveller they probably don’t quite deserve” he adds more intelligently.  Half-time arrives shortly after Pompey’s Ronan Curtis shoots wide with Luke Chambers struggling to get back and defend.

Half-time is busy.  A parcel is delivered by Hermes, or as I childishly call them Herpes.  It reminds me of an aircraft carrier-related joke which seems appropriate on a day when we are playing Portsmouth.  A man tells his friend he has Hermes. “You mean Herpes” says the friend. “No, Hermes” says the man “I’m a carrier”.   I pour myself a glass of Westmalle Dubbel Trappist beer, in part to celebrate James Norwood’s excellent goal and in part to blot out the disappointment of Pompey’s equaliser. I make Paulene a mug of hot chocolate.

Ipswich get first go with the ball when the game re-starts and are attacking the Milton End, where in normal times their followers would be sat, glumly supporting their team.  Town have two shots on goal within the first couple of minutes.  Five minutes into the half Pompey earn another corner, which Town fail to deal with comfortably as a Pompey player wins the initial header. The ball is eventually claimed by Tomas Holy.  Ronan Curtis becomes the second Pompey player to be booked, following a foul on Teddy Bishop.  “Probably the correct call” says Moon again showing the sort of fair, honest commentary you’d expect of the BBC, but for which Brenner Woolley would be criticised for being biased in favour of the opposition.  After the delay for the booking, little Alan Judge prepares to take the free-kick.  “The referee says off you go” is Moon’s slightly weird, imagined rendition of the conversation that precedes it.  

The second half is not as good as the first from an Ipswich perspective. We are no longer the better team as Pompey dominate down their left, and I am now beginning to miss the wise and plentiful words of Mick Mills who would have explained where Town are going wrong if this were a home game.  Guy Whittingham is no more a fitting substitute co-commentator for Mick than John Stirk was a fitting substitute full-back.  Andrew Moon however, is showing that he has all the peculiar commentating skills of our own Brenner Woolley as he speaks of a Pompey player “rubbing his face in frustration” (as you do) and “Portsmouth picking up the pieces in the shape of Naylor” which has my mind’s eye working overtime and imagining what a football match painted by Pablo Picasso would look like.  Moon then goes for his hat-trick of facile references to the perceived ‘new era’ with “The first substitution of the Cowley era” as Ben Close replaces Andy Cannon, moments after the referee creates his own hat-trick of Pompey bookings  with Andy Cannon’s name.

For Town Armando Dobra replaces the oddly-named Keanan Bennetts. James Norwood and Ronan Curtis argue like schoolgirls,  but according to Moon “Neither of them is stupid enough to be lulled in to doing something”.    It’s an odd bit of commentary that barely makes sense in relation to the on-screen pictures and there is every possibility that Moon means provoked instead of lulled, unless perhaps what looks like an exchange of verbal abuse is in fact the two players singing softly to one another .

More than once Moon refers to Tomas Holy as the “big Czech”, as if his nationality mattered,  and then with 20 minutes gone Town win their first corner of the second half.  Presumably having found a free page in his notebook, Mr Young turns his attention to Ipswich and books Gwion Edwards and Luke Chambers in quick succession.  Moon tells us that “A loud, gruff, Scouse accent shouts for the touchline”, which is quite reassuring for Town fans as long as Paul Cook is coaching the Town players and not just giving us his version of “Twist and Shout”.

Seventy one minutes have passed and Teddy Bishop becomes the equaliser in Mr Young’s private booking competition before we hear Moon excitedly say “…and Marcus Harness has turned it around for Portsmouth” and my heart sinks as  I watch Harness get two shots on goal, the second one of which tickles the net.  “Cowley’s certainly injected something into this team” continues Moon raising hopes that Town will be awarded the points when the Pompey players fail the post-match drugs test.  

Town are never in the game again.  “Step up” shouts a Cowley from the touchline; Pompey do, Town don’t.   Kayden Jackson and Kane Vincent-Young replace little Alan Judge and James Wilson, but to no avail.  Pompey’s Michael Jacobs edges the booking competition in Pompey’s favour.  With less than two minutes of normal time remaining Troy Parrott replaces Teddy Bishop.  Paulene answers the front door because Town have a free-kick and I refuse to leave the sofa; it’s my step -son calling to collect Larry’s birthday card.  The free-kick produces nothing.   Tomas Holy saves a header from James Bolton as another Pompey corner troubles the Town defence.  Five minutes of added on time raise my hopes “Five minutes!” exclaims Paulene “where did they get that from?”

It doesn’t matter where the five minutes came from, because it goes and the game ends. Ipswich lose, Pompey win. There is no mention of any Pompey players failing the drugs test.  Paulene apologises for my disappointment.  We are told that this is the first time Pompey have come back to win after going a goal behind in nearly two years.  Frankly, the United Nations International day of Happiness has not lived up to expectations, but at least I can look forward to the company of Brenner again next week.

Ipswich Town 2 Doncaster Rovers 1

Today is a beautiful day; the sun is shining, the sky is blue, the birds are singing; February is not yet over but it feels like Spring is here.  I spend the morning in the garden.  It’s been a sunny week and an odd week of rumours about Ipswich Town being the subject of a takeover, a buyout, a sale.  What seemingly started as a joke on social media has grown into a rumour sufficiently credible, or at least prevalent, for the local newspapers to report it and the club owner to deny he is “actively looking to sell”.  To add a layer of complexity to the story, those calling for Town manager Paul Lambert to be sacked are now having to contend with the team having found some decent form, having at last beaten a team in the top six of the third division and having not conceded a goal in three games.  All this coincides with the buffoon who is ludicrously Prime Minister of the United Kingdom announcing  details of what he calls his ‘road map’ for the nation’s way out of lockdown and a hoped for return to normality in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.  Suddenly, optimism is the ‘new normal’, although as all Town fans know we must be careful what we wish for.

Rewarding myself for my morning’s work in the garden I sit outside and pour a pre-match ‘pint’ (500ml) of Fuller’s Bengal Lancer (£13.95 for eight bottles direct from the brewery).  I am reminded of the song ‘Winter’s Over’ by the erstwhile Norwich band ‘Serious Drinking’, the lyrics of which read “Thanks God the winter’s over, December’s far away, let’s drink outside at lunchtime , on another sunny day”.   My wife Paulene has a gin with soda water and together we kick back and enjoy the warmth of the sun on our faces and bare arms; feeling like an Englishman at the seaside I roll up my trouser legs and top up on much missed Vitamin D. 

As we lose ourselves in the joy of being outside in the sun, time moves on and three o’clock soon approaches; I move to the kitchen and Paulene to the living room where separately we tune in to the ifollow, me to watch Town, Paulene to watch Pompey play Gillingham.  By the time I log on and hitch my lap top to the tv, today’s opponents Doncaster Rovers are on the pitch in their red and white hooped shirts and red shorts, hugging and forming a circle like new age weirdos crossed with a Rugby League scrum. Town trot on to the pitch and then together the two teams ‘take the knee’ to annoy all the people who deserve to be annoyed.  I feel like I’ve arrived in the ground just in time for kick-off, as you do when it’s been difficult leaving the pub.

The game begins, Ipswich having first go with the ball and kicking towards what will always be Churchman’s, although the Sir Alf Ramsey Cigarette End sounds good, but I doubt Sir Alf smoked. “Doncaster lack a goal scorer; a bit like us” are the first wise words of the afternoon that  I hear Mick Mills say as side-kick to BBC Radio Suffolk’s commentator Brenner Woolley.  The Town team is unchanged from the beautifully unexpected 1-0 win at Hull on Tuesday.   “Bostock trying to pull the strings” says Brenner of the Doncaster midfielder, quickly settling into football speak.  Midfielders always ‘pull the strings’ in football and not only those on the waist bands of their shorts.  “Smith, on loan from Manchester City, the blond-haired player” continues Brenner, airing his interest in all things tonsorial and using his trademark back to front sentence construction.

Brenner tells us that it’s a “Fine Spring afternoon at Portman Road”; indeed it is and to make the point again Brenner describes how some player or other “…goes square into the sunshine”.  Doncaster have started ‘brightly’ we are told, it must be all that sunshine. Suddenly, “That was awful from Judge” says Brenner excitedly as little Alan Judge inexplicably turns and plays a perfect through ball for a Doncaster wide player to run onto.  “That was woeful from Town” adds Brenner just so we can be sure how bad it was.  “Doncaster, very lively on their feet” says Mick.  It’s a sentence that might suggest that they are not so lively on other parts of their bodies, but we never find out.  It seems likely however that  ‘lively feet’ are a pre-requisite for footballers, and for goalkeepers ‘lively hands and arms’ too.

Just eight minutes have elapsed since kick-off and Doncaster, or ‘Donny’ as Brenner is calling them, to show off his knowledge of local slang names, are dominant.   “The (Town) defence is working overtime, they really are” says Mick conjuring up images of Marcus Evans on the phone to his accountants checking that Luke Chambers only gets time and a half and not double time.  “Gorgeous weather over there” says Brenner of the far side of the pitch and thereby displaying a worrying perception that being in the shade means he is experiencing different weather from somewhere a hundred metres away.

Three minutes later and “Doncaster, the better side after eleven minutes” is Brenner’s assessment. “The tide will turn if you’re professionally about it” replies Mick, accidentally using an adverb and adding another natural phenomenon to the commentary to compliment Brenner’s interest in the weather.  Doncaster’s Joe Wright  ”… puts his foot through the ball” according to Brenner , who  then follows up with reference to what he had expected “early doors”.   We are not yet a quarter of the way through the game and impressively Brenner has used most of his football-ese vocabulary already.

Doncaster’s John Bostock is a frequent name in Brenner’s commentary as he continually links up play between Rovers’ defence and wide players.  Bostock is 29 years old.  “All these years, I don’t think I’ve ever seen John Bostock” admits Brenner, but then he hasn’t been commentating for local radio in Leuven, Antwerp, Lens, Toulouse and Bursa where Bostock has played 148 of his 200 odd club games.  Myles Kenlock wins the game’s first corner.  “If Town score it’ll be very much against the run of play, but we’ll take it” says Brenner magnanimously.   Why do people say “we’ll take it” ?  What is “it”? Has anyone ever “not taken it”?  If you take “it”, where do you put it? Thankfully in the circumstances, Town don’t score.

John Bostock is still the dominant presence in midfield and therefore it is Doncaster who have the ball most of the time.  “It’s Dozzell and Freddie Bishop we need more from” says Mick.  Town break down the right and win a free-kick.  “Judge not keen to put the ball in the painted crescent by the referee”  says Brenner  , unusually getting his trademark sentence construction all wrong.  From the free-kick Toto Nsiala sends a decent header across the face of the goal.

Town break forward again, this time more centrally and Teddy Bishop is adjudged to have been fouled by Doncaster’s Taylor Richards.  Mick isn’t convinced it was a foul, but presumably someone decides we should “take it”.  A knot of Town players surround the ball. “Norwood’s been told to do one” says Brenner, eliciting a stifled chortle from Mick.  Little Alan Judge takes the free-kick and arrows a superlative right-footed shot into the top right hand corner of the Doncaster goal.  “That was a fabulous goal” says Mick, and after twenty-four minutes Town lead one-nil.  “A cracking free-kick from the Irish midfielder” says Brenner characteristically reducing little Alan Judge to a nationality whilst also sounding a bit like Wallace from the Wallace and Gromit animations.

For a short while Town have as much of the ball as Doncaster.  Luke Chambers gets forward from his full-back position and earns a corner “ Yeah, good play” confirms Mick.  Then little Alan Judge almost scores again as Myles Kenlock makes a long run forward to pull back a deep cross to him. Town win a third corner and then a fourth. Brenner saying “Bostock with that bleached mohawk haircut” and “Bostock along the deck” announces Doncaster’s return to having more possession and Brenner’s continued interest in coiffure and his curious need to describe football using nautical terminology.

Ten minutes to half-time and Doncaster almost score, with Tomas Holy deflecting a shot away with his right leg and the follow-up shot from Josh Sims , who makes me think of Joan Sims, being blocked by the excellent Toto Nsiala. “Best attack from Doncaster if you’re talking about ending up with something on target” says Mick having clearly spotted that in spite of all their possession Doncaster have had very few decent attempts on goal.  Another Doncaster shot is on target but Brenner confirms that it’s “straight down the mouth of Tomas Holy, who drops on the ball for extra security”.  Mick thinks the Doncaster player should have done better, with “Control, finish” being his unusually succinct assessment of what he needed to do.

With half-time approaching, Brenner adds a little incidental colour to his commentary telling us that Paul Lambert is “just screwing the top back on his water bottle”; it sounds like a euphemism but it’s probably not.  Half-time comes and Brenner tells us that it’s a case of “Town with that slender 1-0 lead” as opposed, presumably, to a huge 1-0 lead or even a slender 3-0 lead.  With Mick heading off into a long and convoluted explanation of the first half, the BBC Radio Suffolk transmission is rudely interrupted by the ifollow’s own commercial break , disgusted that Mick must play second fiddle to consumerism and capitalist greed, I get up to put the kettle on.

The second half begins with a cup of tea and a couple of ginger Christmas tree biscuits ,which are very tasty and which my wife Paulene acquired at a generous 70% discount due to Christmas having happened two months ago. Paulene incidentally has given up on Pompey v Gillingham and has turned to Dijon FCO versus Paris St Germain in French Ligue 1, where former Town loanee Bersant Celina is playing for the home team and is destined to have easily his team’s best attempt on goal,  but his team will lose four-nil.  Brenner meanwhile announces that if Town win this afternoon it will be “a huge feather in their cap and a right old boost”, whilst Mick summarises the game so far by stating “Bostock and Smith have been much better than Dozzell and Bishop”, and naturally Mick is right.

Just two minutes into the half and Myles Kenlock is booked for an unnecessary foul on Taylor Richards.  Mick tells us that Doncaster had 71% of possession in the first half, although personally I was more impressed with their 85% passing accuracy.  “A lazy leg in there from Okenabirhie” says Brenner as the Doncaster player fouls Andre Dozzell and I imagine Okenabirhie dragging his idle, recalcitrant leg about the pitch constantly committing fouls as other players fall over it.   Doncaster start the half well, but it’s Town who almost score as James Norwood bounces a shot off the ground and Joe Wright heads it off the goal line.   A minute later Wright concedes a corner;  the ball is headed on from the edge of the penalty area and James Norwood nips in to scramble it past the exotically named Doncaster goalkeeper, Ellery Balcombe who sounds like he might write pulp crime fiction when he’s not picking the ball from the back of his goal net.    Town lead 2-0; I let out a cheer, clap my hands above my head and kick my legs out in front of me.  “Goodness, gracious me” says Brenner mysteriously channeling Peter Sellers and making me imagine Mick as Sophia Loren.

Moments later little Alan Judge shoots a little high and a little wide or, as Brenner rather gruesomely describes  it,  “he opened up his body from 19 yards”.  “Greedy for me” says Mick and suggests Troy Parrott was free and better placed.  If Parrott was perhaps older, had been at the club longer and knew little Alan “as a person”, Mick believes he would have given little Alan Judge a “volley” of abuse.  It’s an entertaining insight from Mick.

An hour passes; Doncaster make two substitutions and win what Brenner refers to as a “rare Doncaster corner”.  Tomas Holy rather weirdly “pats the ball into the ground” according to Brenner, who goes onto speak, as he did last week, of a “bit of brown ground down this nearside”.   It’s a phrase that suggests Brenner has no concept of mud or bare earth and has me wondering if he otherwise thinks of the pitch as “green ground”.

Doncaster begin to recover from the blow of the second Town goal and in the 64th minute almost score. “That was close to a goal from Doncaster” says Brenner and Mick backs him up with “That was a big chance for Bogle, it really was”.  Three minutes on and Gwion Edwards and Flynn Downes replace Little Alan Judge and Andre Dozzell.  Five minutes further on and a Doncaster shot strikes an Ipswich goalpost.   A minute after that Taylor scores for Doncaster after a slightly desperate tackle from Flynn Downes sees the ball squirm away to Jon Taylor who is in space and strides forward to hit the ball across Tomas Holy and inside the far post.  “Maybe they deserve it” says Mick sportingly but resentfully, citing that Doncaster had hit a post.

Fifteen minutes of normal time remain and Josh Harrop replaces the oddly named Keanan Bennetts. Eleven minutes of normal time remain and Aaron Drinan and Freddie Sears replace James Norwood and Troy Parrott.  Mick questions the wisdom of changing half the team.  “It’ll be awful if Town let a 2-0 lead slip in this game” says Brenner mischievously before going onto predict “an uncomfortable final eight minutes for Ipswich Town fans”.  Brenner is right and yet he’s not; Doncaster camp around the Town penalty area, passing the ball back and forth but seldom if ever threaten the Town goal.

With two minutes left Aaron Drinan breaks down the right. “Poor from Drinan” says Brenner as an over hit cross by-passes a Doncaster penalty area which is devoid of Town players in any case. “Still Town on top in terms of score line” says Brenner, reassuringly stating the obvious.  Four minutes of added on time will be played. “Stand by your beds, it won’t be easy listening” says Brenner, fulfilling his own prophecy before he’s said it; “All hands on deck for Ipswich Town off to the right”, although I think he meant starboard. In the ninety-third minute of added time the ball falls to Teddy Bishop who aimlessly and apparently in a state of panic lumps the ball away up field, provoking the sort of sweary outburst from me that would be frowned upon within earshot of the Family Enclosure at Portman Road.  But Doncaster are playing with only Omar Bogle up front and he’s not been by any means a prolific goalscorer at any time since he left Grimsby Town in 2017, consequently the score remains unaltered and Town win.

“You wait all this time for a victory against a top six side and then two come along at once” says Brenner, reprising, but mostly repeating his public transport based analogy from last week. I think to myself how you can wait years for a public transport related analogy in a football commemtary and then two come along at once. To the strains of “Hey Jude” the players leave the pitch; they have taken a sad song and made it better. It really has been a beautiful day.

Ipswich Town 0 Portsmouth 2

This morning I have lost two hours of my life.   Waking up just before five o’clock, nature calls and I answer, but returning to bed I struggle  to sleep as my nose starts to run and I become restless.  I hear the clock strike six and then after fitful sleep I am sure I hear it strike seven.  I’ll get up soon I think to myself.  My wife Paulene is a light sleeper, the other half of the bed is vacant; but she’s often up before six.  I lie there, luxuriating in the warmth of a bed on a winter’s morning.  Time passes; I raise my arm and look at my watch.   It’s twenty-two minutes past nine. Twenty-two minutes past nine!  Confused and befuddled I leap out of bed, shower, dress and head downstairs where Paulene addresses me with a predictable greeting of “ At last!”

Feeling a mixture of guilt and disappointment that the waking moments of my precious weekend have carelessly been shortened, after eating a breakfast of porridge as a tribute to families of bears everywhere, I throw myself into Christmas card writing and present wrapping as I seek redemption.  By one o’clock all cards are written, envelopes addressed and stamped, and I take them to the post box, which I can see from my kitchen window.  The day is cold, damp and grey as December days should be.  I skip over the muddy verge; my footsteps disturb the shallow puddles of the wet pavement; I discover that my old pair of shoes, which I keep in the kitchen for gardening in, leak.   Back in the warmth and dry I surround myself with Christmas gifts, Christmas paper, sellotape and scissors.  By a quarter to three the presents are wrapped; I am redeemed and ready to visit Portman Road through the medium of the ifollow.  I celebrate with a pre-match ‘pint’ (actually only 330ml) of Brewdog Lock Down, described on the tin as a Guava & Grapefruit Pilsner, which I take from my beer-a-day advent calendar.  Served cool on a hot summer’s day it would be refreshing, but it’s hardly a beer for a northern European winter’s day.

In the living room Paulene is aghast at a day-time tv programme in which a morbidly obese woman is fitted for an unsuitable wedding dress whilst frequently breaking down in tears because of unresolved psychological issues.  Car crash tv such as this is horribly compelling and it’s gone five to three by the time we can tear ourselves away from the sight of the not quite as obese but very sweaty and terrified looking groom waiting at the altar.  I access the ifollow just as the pictures from Portman Road switch to an advert for the ifollow, which seems a bit pointless given that I am already watching it. By the end of the commercial break it’s gone three o’clock and the game hasn’t started. Paulene looks at her phone and an app which says that the game is three minutes in.  I check my lap-top and find a red on-screen button displaying the word ‘Live’; I click it and the broadcast miraculously moves forward in time to the fourth minute.  That’s another three minutes of my life I’ve lost today.

I am calmed by the soothing voice of Mick Mills “I think we’re one of the better teams in the division” says Mick.  “What you have to remember is this is not a good division” he adds, like a punchline.  That one-liner aside, Mick is in positive mood and tells us that Town will be confident after last week’s win at Plymouth.  I hope he’s right, but Paulene doesn’t because she supports Portsmouth.  “Light rain tumbling at Portman Road” says Brenner Woolley poetically.  “Headed on by the pony-tailed Marquis” he continues, although I think he means Harness because Pompey’s John Marquis doesn’t have a ponytail, whereas Marcus Harness does, and what’s more his first name and surname rhyme delightfully, but Brenner doesn’t mention that.  “We were slow with the free-kick and very, very slow with the throw-in” says Mick casting early doubt on Town’s confidence.

With nine minutes gone a shot from John Marquis on the turn is very well saved by Town goal keeper David Cornell, who Brenner consistently refers to as Dai.  Pompey win a succession of corners, although quite how many is unclear as the caption on the screen says three but Brenner says four.  “They’re beginning to settle better than Town” says Mick of Pompey, questioning further his opening statement about Town’s confidence.  “Portsmouth the better side at the moment” confirms Brenner, for those who might not have grasped the implication of Mick’s comment.   “Bouncing the ball off each other like a ping pong machine” says Mick inventing a new type of machine in order to illustrate just how Pompey are currently the better side.

Happily the ping pong machine breaks down or is shown to be a figment of Mick’s imagination and Town begin to get into the game themselves.  “The game has become much livelier now Town have entered the contest” says Brenner before repeating the sentiment but in footballspeak by saying that Town are “more into this game than they were early doors”.   Town’s Albanian Armando Dobra “…gives the thumbs-up to his fellow teenager” having failed to catch an over hit pass but then shortly afterwards has Town’s first shot on goal after giving a “little shimmy”.   But both Mick and Brenner agree Dobra should have scored, which is a pity because it will prove to be Town’s only   decent attempt on goal all afternoon.  Despite his miss, Dobra is the man of the moment and Mick waxes lyrical about his willingness to run at the opposition and the impact it has “He just throws them upside down” says Mick, leaving me worried that he’s bound to get booked sooner or later doing that.

With Town playing quite well Brenner relaxes and playfully mentions Toto Nsiala sharing some banter with the fans “… as he walks down the touchline with his black beanie hat”.  Brenner has stopped mentioning what Paul Lambert has been wearing in recent weeks and I find it reassuring to know that Toto has a black beanie hat, even if we don’t know if he had it on and was wearing it at a jaunty angle or like a commando.   It seems safe to say I am quite enjoying the game at the moment and Brenner adds to my enjoyment with his mention of the “man in the luminous kit”, a phrase he uses perhaps because it seems easier than using the Pompey goalkeeper’s name, Craig McGillivray, which looks difficult to pronounce but actually isn’t; it also looks incidentally, like a Scottish version of the planet that Dr Who is from.  Time Lords aside, Brenner is on a roll and follows up with reference to Pompey’s Ryan Williams as “the pony-tailed Australian” , again showing his minor obsession with pony-tails as opposed to all other hairstyles , such as Luke Chambers’ Army conscript look or Stephen Ward’s very neat short back and sides.

Things seem just fine and so on 29 minutes Pompey score, the aforementioned pony-tailed Australian arriving in the penalty area on his own to hit the ball from about eight yards into the roof of the net after a precise passing move.  Mick and Brenner give credit where it’s due, “Outstanding goal” says Mick.  Four minutes later Town’s Jon Nolan is sitting on the turf rubbing his calf and is replaced by Brett McGavin.  Pompey almost score again seven minutes later, but don’t.  Ipswich meanwhile recover enough composure for Mick to be moved to say “It was lovely to watch and there was almost an end product, I didn’t dislike that”.  Two minutes later the same pony-tailed Australian scores again and with three minutes additional time played Portsmouth lead 2-0 at half-time.

 Paulene and I leave our seats for the half-time break; I return to the living room with two mugs of tea and a Nature Valley peanut and chocolate protein bar;  Paulene returns wearing a Pompey shirt and accompanied by Nelson the Portsmouth mascot, or at least a 30 centimetre high cuddly effigy of him.  I think it’s her subtle way of gloating.  Within three minutes John Marquis should score a third goal for Portsmouth and then seven minutes later he sends a header against the Town cross bar.  Almost an hour of play has passed and we learn that Mick Mills has brought mince pies to the game, it’s a highlight of the afternoon’s commentary, as is the confession from Brenner that he has taken one of Guy Whittingham’s mince pies whilst he was away.  It’s an interlude in the commentary that reveals a lot about the differing characters of generous Town legend Mick Mills and the sly, mince pie stealing BBC Radio Suffolk commentator.  Mick does admit that he likes to be co-commentator because it gives him more time to eat, but no Town fan would be begrudge him that after a record 741 games for the blues.

Pointlessly, little Alan Judge is replaced by the weirdly named Keanan Bennetts and Kayden Jackson is replaced by Aaron Drinan. Pompey’s Ronan Curtis strikes the cross bar with a shot from outside the penalty area.  Mick explains how the third goal in a game is the most important.  “How can you listen to this bloke every week” asked Paulene of Mick.  “He just the states the bleedin’ obvious” she adds in as lady-like manner as possible.  Naturally, I leap to Mick’s defence, mis-quoting the words of Rex Harrison as Professor Henry Higgins in the 1964 film musical ‘My fair lady’; “I’ve grown accustomed to his voice” I sing to her.  She doesn’t seem convinced.

Four more minutes pass and “Dai” Cornell makes another brilliant diving save to prevent another Pompey goal.  Ronan Curtis is booked. Oliver Hawkins replaces Jack Lankester but not before Lankester is booked and Brenner continues to pronounce Lankester like the county town of Lancashire, despite the blatantly obvious difference in spelling; damn his short northern vowels, as Henry Higgins might say.  Town are now playing with two strikers despite Paul Lambert’s assertion that his team is ‘hopeless’ playing such a formation.  Lambert is right of course, because two ‘up front’ simply means we are fielding two players who rarely get to touch the ball, not just one.  Mark McGuinness is booked for a foul on Marcus Harness to create a satisfyingly sibilant sentence. Brett McGavin is booked also to complete a bizarre four minutes of ill-discipline amongst Town’s youngsters.  “Bennetts with his pink boots on” says Brenner, as he did last week in Plymouth.  “This game has gone sort of very untidy now” says Mick, cleverly creating a metaphor for the game with his own untidy sentence construction.

With the game into its last ten minutes all seems lost. “Absolutely silent at the moment in Portman Road” Brenner tells us “You certainly wouldn’t know there were 2000 people here”.  But in truth the same can often be said when there are 15,000 people present, so he shouldn’t be too surprised.  A  heavy sigh is audible before Mick says “We just can’t create”, but soon afterwards Town win a corner and Mark McGuinness heads over from a central position. “Just needed to head between the cross bar and the two posts” says Mick, stating the obvious or having possibly recently developed an unexpected streak of sarcasm.  It’s something he repeats a short while later with “A chance to create a chance if ever there was one”.  

“Town fans unable to leave early” gloats Brenner as four minutes of added on time is announced. Brenner sighs, “Really flat here” he says, sounding genuinely sorry, the thrill of an illicit mince pie clearly having passed.  The game is about to end. “The inevitable boos are ten seconds away” says Brenner.  His prediction is sadly correct although some fans applaud the team, as they should; we just happen to have been beaten by a better team, a team not necessarily of greater talent, but one of greater wile, better organisation, more consistency in terms of selection and greater experience.  Paulene is shocked at how some of Town’s alleged ‘supporters’ have so easily turned on their team; I’m not. I’m used to it. “Britain’s most miserable football club” says Brenner of Ipswich Town, most appropriately, as the players leave the field to the strains of Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime”. 

Often a piece of writing will end with a reference back to the beginning to provide a conclusion and satisfying circularity. If you recall, the opening of this piece was about two hours of my life that I had lost because I had overslept. It would be a bit obvious to say I’d lost another two hours of my life to Ipswich Town and the ifollow, so I won’t; what’s more I haven’t.  Paulene enjoyed it anyway.

Ipswich Town 0 Charlton Athletic 2

Despite my father growing up in Gosport , the only football match I recall him mentioning going to as a boy was when his uncle George, who lived in Plumstead, took him to see Charlton Athletic at The Valley.  This would have been at some time in the late 1930’s when Charlton were one of England’s top teams and having been promoted in consecutive seasons under Jimmy Seed from the Third Division South to the First Division, the ‘addicks finished runners-up, fourth and then third in the three seasons before the outbreak of the Second World War.  Charlton had the largest club ground in the country at the time and in February 1938 a record 75,031 people piled in to watch an FA Cup tie versus Blackburn Rovers, it is reckoned that even then the ground wasn’t full.   If it was that match that my father’s uncle George took him too, and it might have been, it’s little wonder he remembered it.

Now, over eighty years on and nobody can go to the football anymore and the stadiums sit empty as we watch the games on the telly.  Not going to football is better than dying a horrible death from Covid-19 of course, so I’m not complaining, but footie on the telly is losing its appeal and logging into the ifollow each week is becoming a chore.  At least I think that’s the problem, but it might just be that my team Ipswich Town keep losing and against the background noise of social media and the silence of the empty stadium football is no longer as enjoyable as it was back in the good old days of Paul Hurst, Mick McCarthy, Paul Jewell, Roy Keane, John Duncan and Bobby Ferguson.

Although in melancholy mood, I nevertheless log in to my lap-top and the ifollow and make the connection just in time to hear the tail end of a report from Carrow Road on Radio Suffolk, which ends with the words ‘mind the gap’.  I understand these words are meant as a reference to Norwich City being in a higher division than Ipswich Town,  but I find it rather endearing that people from Norwich should find travelling on the London Underground so memorable that they have taken to repeating a station announcement in this way.  I settle into my Ikea Poang chair and as the pictures of Portman Road appear on my tv screen I take the opportunity to drink in sight of the pitch, seeking solace in a bottle of Titanic Plum Porter (two for £3 from Waitrose).

The mellifluous voice of Brenner Woolley introduces Mick Mills who waxes long, but not necessarily lyrically about the failure of Paul Lambert to prevent relegation in 2019 or to achieve promotion in 2020.  The failures of last season seem to be being repeated again; and not achieving promotion again, says Mick, is “what worries local people”.    Micks mention of ‘local people’ immediately has me thinking not of the Football League but of the League of Gentleman, and my mind’s eye puts  Mick in a floral headscarf, thick-framed glasses and poorly applied lipstick repeating ‘local people’ in a high-pitched voice .

The lining up of the players for the start of the game and a minute’s applause for the recently deceased Diego Maradona curtail the disturbing image in my head.  Maradona had, says Brenner “… a pure love of the ball and it loved him back”.  Brenner’s attempt to get all poetic is appropriate given Maradona’s brilliance,  but I can’t help thinking that affording emotions to inanimate objects is just a bit weird.  Nevertheless, when it is eventually Brenner’s turn to shuffle out of his mortal commentary box I like to think that someone somewhere will be moved to say that Brenner loved his microphone and it loved him back, and that the same was true of Mick Mills.

Clearly inspired by the tribute to Maradona, Brenner is quick to get into footballspeak with the phrase “early doors from Pratley” as Charlton’s Darren Pratley does something or other early in the game.  On the pitch David Cornell, with his first touch of the ball in his first league appearance for Town, slips and sends his goal-kick out for a throw-in.  For the first five minutes Brenner can’t mention a Charlton Athletic player’s name without also telling us all the teams he’s ever played for.   It’s as if he has researched all this information and he’ll be damned if he’s not going to use it, and as quickly as possible.    The ball has been booted upfield by both teams several times in the opening minutes and Mick tells us this makes the game quite entertaining.  I’m not convinced, and gain more pleasure from Brenner’s reference to “the pony-tailed Woolfenden”, although in truth, whilst in favour of long-haired footballers, I am not that impressed by the ponytail itself, but give it time.

The weirdly named Keanan Bennetts falls to the ground in the penalty area and Brenner tells us that “ two or three players put their blue-sleeved arms up there”.  Mick however gives those blue-sleeved arms’ owners short-shrift and sounds somewhat disgusted that they should have appealed for what was clearly not a penalty.  ‘Good old Mick,’ I think to myself, ‘you tell these youngsters’.    Mick is having a good early afternoon and after Brenner tells us that Charlton have two ‘makeshift’ centre-halves in Darren Pratley and Chris Gunter, Mick explains his hopes for Town because James Norwood is a “very knowledgeable striker”.  This probably means however that Norwood will be mostly looking to win free-kicks rather than appearing in a future episode of ‘Only Connect’.    In a rich vein of form Mick goes on to explain why he and Brenner say that Town are playing a 4-3-3 formation, even though  Town manager Paul Lambert has denied this and refers to more complicated permutations such as 4-1-2-2-1.  “We’re trying to paint a picture” says Mick, although sadly he omits to mention painting by numbers, Abstract Expressionism or Kayden Jackson Pollock; it’s an opportunity missed by the Town legend.

In the thirteenth minute Luke Chambers wins Town’s first corner through the unexpected means of a shot with the outside of his right foot.  Three minutes later and Brenner says “Town the better side at the moment” and he’s not wrong, although it’s not long before Charlton are passing the ball within the left hand side of Town’s penalty area; it’s a situation “very similar to how McGuinness gave away a penalty ….here……before”  says Mick sounding as if he is struggling to remember that it only happened last Saturday against Shrewsbury.  In the twenty-first minute Charlton score having made easy progress through the left side of Town’s defence once again.

Brenner tells us that Brett McGavin wins a free-kick because of a “high-shoe” from Andrew Shinnie, who we have to hope scores lots of goals with his lower leg.  Dozzell sends a lofted pass “over the top” but “ there’s too much on that from Andre “ says Brenner with cosy familiarity as the ball sails out of play.  From upstairs I hear a shout ,“Oooooooh”.  My wife is in the bedroom with Pompey, King’s Lynn Town and the FA Cup on BBC iplayer.  Not expecting to miss anything much at Portman Road I nip up the stairs in time to witness a replay of some Pompey player or other sweeping the ball into the top corner of the King’s Lynn net from a few metres outside the penalty area. “Is he allowed to do that?” I ask.  Apparently he is.  Pompey will go on to win 6-1, which makes my wife happy and me too  because it’s good to see teams from Norfolk lose.

I return to Portman Road in time to see James Norwood fall to the ground clutching his hamstring.  “That’s gutting for the lad” says Brenner going into footballspeak overdrive and thereby sounding like a public schoolboy straining for ‘street cred’.  “What is the matter with this club? asks Mick more pointedly,  querying why we have a whole team’s worth of players out through injury.   Mick believes someone seriously needs to carry out some research into why we have so many injured players.  Once the game restarts little Alan Judge comes close to scoring but for a fine flying save from Ben Amos in the Charlton goal , and then Judge becomes the only player of the afternoon to be booked.

Asked to sum up the first half by Brenner, Mick says “ It’s been indifferent really”.  Asked his opinion of Charlton, Mick says they have players who have “…been around a long time. They can play. They’re okay”.   What this glowing eulogy says about Town I can’t make out.   After a cup of tea and a Nature Valley chocolate protein bar the second half begins.

Ipswich win a corner, they don’t score. Eleven minutes pass and my eyes are feeling heavy. “We do have to think about changing direction again” says Mick as if Town had struggled with the change of ends at half time.  It’s the 59th minute.  In the 65th minute I open my eyes to see Town’s converted electric milk float ferrying Charlton’s Paul Smyth off the pitch. I’ve been asleep.  The wonderfully named Omar Bogle replaces Smyth and Town’s players don’t notice, allowing him to remain unmarked beyond the far post so that he can easily divert either a cross or a poorly aimed shot from Darren Pratley into the Town net. Charlton lead 2-0.

The remaining twenty-two minutes do little for me, although I do not fall asleep again and am kept entertained by the name of the next Charlton Athletic substitute, Ben Purrington, who replaces Chukwuemek Aneke.  I can’t decide whether  Purrington is having a great game or whether it’ s just that I find his surname so unlikely,  but the word Purrington is now all I can hear from Brenner’s commentary.  Mr Purrington, it sounds like the name someone might give to their pet cat. “Prodded away by an alert Purrington” says Brenner, sounding as if he is enjoying the substitutes surname as much as I am.

Mr Purrington ?

The final ten minutes of normal time arrive.  Little Alan Judge shoots at goal but his shot is straight at Amos the goalkeeper; if he’d shot like that at Amos the old testament prophet,  he would probably have saved it too.   “Charlton up to fourth, and third if they can get another goal” says Brenner optimistically.  Town win their second corner of the half.  Seven minutes of added on time are to be played, some of  it perhaps because the milk-float that carried off Smyth “ran into traffic”, a phrase I don’t remember Brenner using today.  “What do you think Mick Mills?” asks Brenner with a weary sigh.  “We lost to Hull and we deserved to lose this one as well” is Mick’s honest and accurate assessment.

With the game over I watch the players leave the pitch before the ifollow broadcast ends abruptly, a bit like my enjoyment of today’s game, although that didn’t last as long.  Whatever, I’ll be back for the next game.

Racing Club Lens 3 Chamois Niort 1

Lens is a town of about 37,000 people and is just an hour’s drive from Calais; as a town it’s not much to look at, but then it was virtually annihilated during World War One, although that had an upside as it now has a fabulous 1920’s art deco railway stationOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA featuring four beautiful mosaic friezes depicting the heavy industry made possible by the coal that was hewn from the ground below this town and those around it. This is the land of Emile Zola’s Germinal, a fabulous book which you should all read when not reading this blog. Staying with the arts, Lens is now possibly more famous for having an outpost of the Louvre museum, built to help regenerate the area, the economy of which was devastated by the closure of its coal mines in the 1980’s. Although we can’t blame Thatcher for these mine closures, she probably would have gladly taken the credit seeing as she didn’t seem to care much for coalminers or the French. But most of all, Lens has a football club with a large and fanatical fanbase. Racing Club Lens is in Ligue 2 and this season their average home attendance has been 28,966, making them the fifth best supported club in France behind only PSG, Marseille, Lyon and Lille, all of whom are Ligue 1 clubs.

Tonight is the last match of the league season and Lens, along with RC Strasbourg, SC Amiens, ESTAC Troyes, Stade Brestois and Olympique Nimes have a chance of getting into the promotion/relegation play-off with the team placed third from bottom in Ligue 1, or they could get automatic promotion by finishing second or as Champions. Lens are currently fourth in the league table or classement, two points behind first placed Strasbourg, but they must win and hope that at least one out of Strasbourg, Amiens and Troyes does not. Tonight’s opponents at the magnificent Felix Boleart Delelis stadium are Chamois Niort, placed 10th in the league and as journalistic cliché tells us, they have “nothing to play for but pride” and are likely to be “at the beach already”; but they are a half decent side having hauled themselves up to mid-table after occupying the bottom places earlier in the season. This is surely the most exciting end of season scenario of any professional league in Europe.

Kick-off is not until 8.30 but my wife and I arrive at the stadium at about five o’clock where there are oceans of free car parking, which also serve the Louvre museum. Already the place is busy with bars and food stalls doing a good trade, but not as good as the club shop which is absolutely heaving. I can’t resist getting a T-shirt and scarf34739197331_67aa8da030_o to help me join in with what could be a momentous evening; my wife rolls her eyes. Leaving my purchases back in the car along with the wine and beer I’d already bought from a nearby Intermarche supermarket, we make the short walk into town to take a look at that marvellous railway station. On the way we pass Chez Muriel, a small bar decorated with red, black and gold balloons, the colours of RC Lens, it’s a popular pre-match haunt for Lens fans and there are several people stood out on the pavement drinking beer. Opposite the station another bar also already seems to have standing room only. Having taken my fill of those mosaics rather than any beer, I watch a TGV (Train Grand Vitesse) pull away and think how much like the HS2 it probably is, the only difference being it actually exists and has done for years; French Republic 1 British Monarchy 0.

Strolling away from Gare de Lens we head for the town hall (Hotel de Ville) and then turn left along the main street, which leads down directly to the Stade Felix Boleart and provides a perfect view of the top of Le Stade34830837016_33c3eed68a_o. That’s another thing the French understand, vistas at the ends of streets. There are more bars along the length of the main street, particularly at the stadium end. Many of the bars are decorated in club colours, most of the drinking is taking place out on the street. Some tables have ‘beer engines’ on them34706922842_06291a0e94_o clear towers of beer with a dispenser at the bottom that looks like a football; this is beer drinking that is dedicated to football. This is France, but it is northern France, and it shares the beer drinking culture of Belgium, Germany, Scandinavia and Britain; we are all northern Europeans together, but your dumb Brexiteers wouldn’t have known that. Lens and the towns around it could have been transposed from the coalfields of South Yorkshire or Nottinghamshire or the Ruhr valley in Germany. For a boy from Suffolk some of this lot seem a bit rough and they probably are, brutalised as they or their forefathers were by that hard industrial heritage. Football was the escape from the brutality of the mine and along with a belly full of beer it still is the escape from whatever gets us down, life for instance.

Close to the ground amongst some trees a bunch of blokes who look old enough to know better are setting off some very loud firecrackers, people flinch but take no notice; the police aren’t bothered and four of them on massive white horsesOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA that look like their antecedents were at Agincourt (it’s not that far away) just stroll on by up toward the main street. If this was Alderman Rec’ in Ipswich there would be pandemonium “Oooh, you can’t do that here.”

There is still plenty of time to go until kick-off and we return to the car for me to slip on my pristine RC Lens T-shirt. We finally head for our seats, which cost just 17 Euros each and are at the far end of the stadium behind the goal, in the stand called Trannin. We wend our way through the ever increasing crowds. As I walk on I am handed a political leaflet about forthcoming local elections . At the top of the steps that lead to the Trannin there is a promotion by the Pasquer bakery company and attractive young women hand us little packets containing a small brioche roll34685538902_8d5fbce14f_o with a stick of chocolate stuffed through the middle. It’s a new product from Pasquer called “Match” and the packaging tells me it’s given away free and is not for re-sale; another business plan down the tubes. Having acquired a dessert I need a main course and there is a big friterie truck right in front of me at the back of the stand, so chips and beer it is34060006543_f74d4c6aeb_o. Like I said, this is northern France, chips and beer is what these French people want and it’s what they get. Also, weirdly, the beer outside the stadium is alcoholic, inside it’s not; no wonder it’s busy out here. I go back to get some mayonnaise to put on my chips, as is the custom in these parts. I pump the dispenser and nothing happens, so pump it five, six, seven times more and then it sprays out all over the place accompanied by a nasty farting noise. I get mayonnaise on my sleeve, but there is some on my chips too so it’s not all bad and the bloke stood next to me doesn’t seem to notice that he has mayonnaise splattered down the side of his coat. Sniggering stupidly, but at the same time apologetically, I make a strategic withdrawal.34739078831_2c325b0136_o

Full of chips and beer we enter the stadium through the automated turnstile and I pick up a copy of the free match programme; it’s just a folded A3 sheet but it gives you the two squads, the table and the permutations that will see Lens promoted, and that’s all anyone needs; save the vacuous interviews for the football papers. We climb up to our seats in

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

the the second tier from where the view is fantastic because the stadium is fantastic. The Stade Felix Bolaert Delilis consists of four steep stands that tower over the pitch, they are all painted white, with white metal mesh cladding at the back and sides. When I last came to a game in Lens in 2005, as big as they were some of the stands had amazing wooden roofs; a lesson in sustainable construction, but the refurbishment for the 2016 European Championships sadly did away with those, although the result is nevertheless breath-taking. Each corner of the ground is marked by a soaring spike which looks like it might be a floodlight pylon, but isn’t, the spikes are there to unify the four stands. Once again the French demonstrate their clear ability and desire to make an architectural statement with a football stadium, something desperately lacking in Britain; although Ipswich’s Sir Bobby Robson stand is a happy exception, they just need to tie the other three stands in with it.

Once inside, predictably the stadium is rocking; it is full with the attendance announced as 37,700. From every stand the thrill of the occasion is palpable. Scarves are held aloft and the club anthem is sung with gustoOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA. Flares are lit amongst the ultras who occupy the lower tier of the Marek Xerces stand at the side of the pitch; they wave banners and flags ceaselessly. We all have coloured A1 paper sheets beneath our seats which we hold aloft and the stadium is a sea of red and gold; the blood and the gold (le sang et or); it’s loud, very loud and it’s bloody brilliant, like blood and gold, naturellement. The stadium announcer tells us the team, announcing each player’s first name and then pausing as in unison the crowd shout back his surname. Lens are kicking towards Trannin and at 37 minutes past eight they are top of the league as the brilliantly named Kermit ErasmusOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA (middle name Romeo) smashes the ball home after an initial shot is blocked. Man, this is good! The railway line from that marvellous station runs behind the main stand and the trains hoot their horns as they go past,OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA sounding “Allez Lens” as best they can. Five minutes later and it’s not quite so good, the word is Amiens have scored at Reims and are now top, although Lens remain second and therefore still in line for automatic promotion. At a quarter to eight the mood shifts a little again, a corner is nodded on at the near post and Cristian barges through to head in a second goal for Lens, but as he does so Strasbourg score at home to Bourg-en-Bresse and Lens are knocked back in to the play-off (Barrage) position. But Erasmus and Cristian are the goalscorers, God must be on Lens’ side tonight.

Despite having dropped from top to third Lens are still better off than they were at the start of the night and a bit after ten to eight our mobile phones tell us that Troyes are losing at Sochaux and by half-time they are losing 2-0. The mood remains confident, 2-0 up and even if that means a play-off match, what team is going to fancy coming to Lens? This is the most fun I have had all season, this is football as it should be with a slightly lairy, almost insanely passionate crowd doing their all to support their team, willing them to win. I remember football like this in the 1970’s with scarves held aloft and twirled above our heads; Lens fans still do this and a banner at the far end reads “ Magic Fans”, that is so 1970’s, the age before things were awesome or cool, when they were “Magic”. Bringing things up to date however, one banner reads “Bollaert Boys” whilst a short distance away another reads “Girls 2009” showing that sexual equality has reached the spectators. Mai ’68 wasn’t in vain. Incidentally, the French clubs take their women’s teams much more seriously than we seem to in Britain. Nevertheless, sexism still seems to be alive and well as dancing girls adorn the pitch at half time and an all-male shoot-out takes place, although sexual politics don’t seem to affect the raffle of a new Nissan car amidst a minor display of non-gender specific pyrotechnics.

The fervour of the crowd remains strong as the second half begins and a pair of rather drunk young lads make a spectacle of themselves whilst trying to urge even greater support from the crowd. A female steward instructs them to go and sit down and obediently they walk away, but as soon as she is gone they joyously and amusingly return, skipping with puckish delight.34738977411_d2f8d1f6ce_o They stagger and wave and entertain looking like a pissed-up Ant and Dec whilst the rest of the crowd hurl screwed up programmes and those coloured pieces of paper at their heads.

Back on the pitch and within a quarter of an hour Kermit Erasmus alarmingly tries to cancel out his goal as his under hit back pass leads to a penalty for Niort; the team from the far west of France score to add further to the tension and then they begin to show some of the form that took them away from the relegation zone and Lens start to look nervous. Lens manager Alain Casanova doesn’t hang about and makes changes, the first one of which is to replace Kermit Erasmus with Abdelrafik Garard. But then a wave of joy crashes through the crowd as we learn of a Reims equaliser against Amiens and Lens are back into second place; and there they sit until just three minutes before full-time when the news is that Troyes have come back from 2-0 down to lead 3-2 at Sochaux and Lens are once again in the play-off position. It’s not ideal, but it will do and Cristian adds another goal in the second minute of time added on just to be sure that Niort won’t be emulating Lazarus. A minute later the referee Monsieur Letexier calls time on what has been an enthralling game and we are left to wait for the final score to come in from Reims. All the other teams in the top six have won but Amiens are drawing at seventh placed Reims, which leaves Lens in third and the play-off. The Lens players remain on the pitch.

Noooo! The man in front of me holds his head in his hands and curses incomprehensibly. Jaws drop all around, there is sadness, there is anger, there is disbelief. In the sixth minute of time added on Emmanuel Bourgaud has scored for Amiens pushing them up into second place, sending Troyes down in to the play-off place and condemning Lens to another season in Ligue 2. Mon Dieu! I am shocked,although I had half wanted Amiens to go up having seen them earlier this year, I feel like I have been folded into the heart of the Lensoises tonight; I have cheered and gasped and drank and eaten chips with them, I have worn the T-shirt and squirted mayonnaise at them; I feel their pain, their numbness. Je suis un Lensoise! This is awful. How can something that was so good so quickly feel so hollow?

Most of the crowd stay in the stands to applaud their team, in spite of their disappointment. These people are true supporters. They show no need for recriminations, they love their club. We leave them to their grief, we were Lensoises for an evening only and a Pompey fan and an Ipswich fan cannot authentically share that grief, we are frauds really; they have our sympathy but we must leave them to it. We slip away, back to our car. It’s 10:30 but we are staying 40 minutes away in Lille and we have another match to go to tomorrow night and it’ll take a friggin’ age to get out of the car park. Stay tuned for the next not quite as exciting instalment, Lille v Nantes.

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